Don’t just design accessible products, build accessible experiences

Woman’s hands holding pen writing on paper marked “User Goals”
Use your user journeys to map out all employee and customer touchpoints and make sure they are all accessible.

Design accessible products

“What the heck is offensive about that, Sheri?” you are probably saying to yourself. Followed by “Duh, isn’t that what you keep telling me to do?”

Yes but…

Designing is just one tiny piece of the product development lifecycle. It’s a crucial piece; don’t get me wrong.

You are highly unlikely to get to a good/accessible product if you start with a crap/inaccessible design.

But it is only one tiny piece of one small segment of the complete user experience. Here is what else you have to do in addition to designing an accessible product to make the product experience entirely equivalent for users with disabilities.

Build an accessible product

  • Designing software implicates about 12 of the 50 WCAG 2.1 Level AA guidelines;
  • Multimedia content is another 5;
  • Which leaves 33 guidelines whose requirements can only be satisfied by developers.

There are three approaches you can take

Approach #1: Design knows more than Dev

If you have a design team that knows their accessibility stuff and a dev team that is newer (or outsourced), design teams can help their dev teams by providing information about things that need special accessibility techniques coding. Examples include things like:

  • code this as an H4
  • Use ARIA-describedby to announce “click here to start the job application process,” where the link visually says, “click here.”
  • Use ARIA-liveregion with a polite attribute to announce changes in the detail window when the user is traversing up and down the master list with the mouse or keyboard.

This approach is kind of like a cookbook. Designers don’t need to write actual code for the developers. By pointing them in the right direction, the developers should be able to figure out how to code it exactly (perhaps with a little help from Google.)

Approach #2: Dev knows more than Design

You might be in an environment that is completely the other way around: Developers know their stuff, designers are new to accessibility. In that situation, the designers should expect to answer a lot of questions on things like the pixel thickness, pattern, and color for keyboard focus indicators, error states, and skip to content links if those elements were not specified in the designs.

Approach #3: Nobody knows anything

If no one in your organization knows anything about building accessible experiences, this would be a situation where you would be well served to get outside consulting to provide the correct level of input. Simultaneously, your design and developer teams can get some well-needed intense accessibility training.

Opened xBox packaging, showing cardboard loops and connectors instead of zip ties that must be cut which requires dexterity
xBox packaging photo from “Packaging World”

Accessible packaging and controls count, too

If you are building a physical product, accessible packaging is also essential. Microsoft set the gold standard for how to do this with their new Xbox in 2018. The packaging can be opened with one finger, and people with disabilities were consulted and tested the prototypes — no zip or twist ties that require manual dexterity, and nothing that required teeth to open. Rather than having to dig your fingers into the box to pull something out, cardboard loops allowed people with limited hand control to remove things easily. The controller itself has an anti-slide backing.

Bottom line: People with disabilities know what they need, and they are not shy about sharing their opinions. All you have to do is ask. Make sure you ask several with varying types of disabilities. Dexterity issues for someone with Parkinson’s or Essential Tremor are not the same as for someone with a congenital or acquired limb difference.


Training is the next most important thing on my “accessible experience” list. What is the point of going through the effort to build an accessible product, if you can’t learn how to use it because the training isn’t accessible?

  • There are many accessible learning management systems. Pick one and use it. Do not deploy your training on inaccessible platforms.
  • Provide descriptions for your graphics.
  • Make sure all videos are captioned or subtitled.
  • If your instruction requires a described audio soundtrack (because it is a live video with the instructor writing on a whiteboard, or there are substantial amounts of informative animation), make sure you get that done and make it easy to find.


There are several different types of communications, but they all have to be accessible for the product experience to be accessible.


I wrote an entire article on PDF and HTML accessibility.

  • One path MUST be fully accessible
  • If you have a choice, I believe that HTML accessibility is the more straightforward approach
  • However, if you are in a situation where your users may not have Internet access, PDF will probably make them happier even though it is harder, especially for complex documentation. The only thing that makes PDF accessibility easier is if you use a PDF generation engine that creates WCAG 2.1 Level AA (or at least Section 508 at a minimum) compliant documentation.

Sales / Marketing websites

  • If you have a website where you either a) collect $$, or b) allow free downloads and that site is not accessible, you might as well be hanging a target on your business saying “SUE ME.”
  • If your privacy information isn’t accessible, the Government of California might come after you as well. If you sell food and the nutrition information is not accessible, prepare to hear from the Food and Drug Administration.
  • Collateral websites (where there is info, but no product transactions) should also be accessible.

Social Media Posts

I wrote a complete article dedicated to discussions on making social media accessible. The guidelines are similar to videos for training.

  • Provide descriptions for any informative graphics
  • Provide captions for videos — preferably decent captioning, YouTube autocraptions do not count. Subtitles are an acceptable substitute for captions PROVIDED THAT they don’t block out anything essential on the screen.
  • Analyze the videos and see if a designed audio soundtrack is required.
  • Use multiple social media platforms. None of them are fully accessible at the moment; people with disabilities tend to use what works best for them.


Some people want to be able to call. Some people (my deaf daughter) would prefer to do anything BUT call. Multiple accessible channels are the key to providing accessible support.

  • email
  • accessible chat
  • phone number with trained customer support reps who understand how to take relay calls and also understand assistive technology.
  • social media that responds to tagging


Unless you write the world’s most complex emails, usually only five of the 50 WCAG 2.1 Level AA guidelines are triggered.

  • Language — Because Spanish announced with an Australian accent is annoying.
  • Colors — use sharp color contrast, and make sure you check in color blindness simulation mode if you are using red and green.
  • Alt-text — if you use any informative graphics (such as signatures or logos), make sure they have descriptions. Anything else can be decorative and have null alt-text
  • Link text — make sure it is clear where a link is taking you. Don’t use URLs for link text or vague link text that says “click here” without an ARIA override.
  • Headings — Longer emails should have a proper heading hierarchy


Yep, wrote an entire article on this, too. Surveys are not much more than glorified forms with tables and submit buttons. Make sure you follow the WCAG guidelines for everything listed in the previous section on communications, plus:

  • field labeling and grouping,
  • error handling, and;
  • button labeling.


If you have activities associated with your product (user groups, sponsored meetups, conferences, training), you don’t want those events to exclude your users/employees with disabilities.

Different types of events have different types of accessibility considerations.

  • Any registration forms and informational webpages should meet WCAG 2.1 Level AA.
  • For online activities, real-time captioning is essential, as well as using a video conferencing system that supports keyboard access.
  • In-person events have many more physical access considerations that you can read about at this article I wrote last year on running accessible events.


Whatever you do for your customers, you should be doing for your employees. The same standards apply, and the same lawsuit potential exists, *except* that your customers (who generally don’t know you that well) are more likely to sue you than your employees are. This is why about 90 % of the accessibility programs I have seen only help customers, and the employees are left hanging.

To paraphrase Richard Branson, taking care of your employees, means your EMPLOYEES will take care of your customers. If your internal tools and employee-facing services are not accessible (or difficult for employees with disabilities to use), chances of you keeping a high percentage of employees with disabilities from leaving is not super high. They will get fed up and leave for accessible organizations. Leaving no one who naturally empathizes with what your customers with disabilities are experiencing. Don’t make this mistake. It’s not super hard you just need to:

  1. Hire employees with disabilities
  2. Create policies that support employees with disabilities
  3. Retain employees with disabilities

When you make the complete experience accessible, and not just the product:

  1. People with disabilities, 18 % of the population plus lots of friends and family, will become your very VOCAL fans.
  2. Your salespeople will spend much less time freaking out over deals they thought were “in the bag” that are suddenly unattainable when a compliant VPAT cannot be produced.
  3. Your company may find that there are unexpected benefits of being accessible and not merely compliant. Hyundai received $4 million in free advertising just from the extra media publicity for their hysterical phonetic captions of Boston accents.

There is substantial business value in accessibility above and beyond mere compliance, and it is not hard to find.

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